"It is like the indie rock of the early 80's," said Steve Matthiasson, in reference to the collective sigh away from the big wines that had come to define California. After 15 years of Parker dominance, there emerged a "new wave" of young winemakers–Dan Petroski, Gram Tatomer, Matthew Rorick, Arnot-Roberts–, who are now Matthiasson's age or younger. "We just did our 10th vintage," he said, "but ten years ago, there was no seed. In Napa, there was Abe [Schoener] and me. We didn't know about Arnot-Roberts in the other valley." Much like the hardcore movement that drew a line from punk bands in the late 70's to Indie bands in the mid-80's, these innovative vintners were acting independently, struggling to pursue personal expressions.
Matthiasson, who'd recently read Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991, drew a comparison.
"The underground's musical diversity meant there was no stylistic bandwagon for the media to latch on to, so the record-buying public had to find things there on a band-by-band basis, rather than buying into a bunch of talk about a 'new sound'," writes Azerrad.
"Foucault talks about conditions of possibility that have nothing to do with individuals, but with conditions that allow individuals to launch change," said Matthiasson, who then laughed, apologized for the diversion and explained that he'd studied philosophy in college. And just as Azerrad makes the same argument on page twelve of Our Band Could Be Your Life, writing, "It's not surprising that the indie movement largely started in Southern California– after all, it had the infrastructure...", one could say the same of the underground wine movement in California.
In reflecting back on the first round of winemakers in California, Steve said, "Warren Winiarski [of Stag's Leap], talks about the concept of individuality and balance..." of making wines like snowflakes with unique geometric structures, as opposed to Rorschach tests. "The wines that originally put California on the map were derivative of Europe. Paul Mason was all about Burgundy." However, in the 1980s and '90s, the second round of vintners "hated green acidic wines that have to age," and so they launched the next 15 years of ripe, rich wines. "I give them a lot of props for that, but it took over with no room for expression."
Matthiasson in the vineyard during the harvesting of Ribolla Gialla
And while Matthiasson and Schoener were some of the first to launch round three, making wildly different wines that reflected their individual visions, there's been a small succession of young vintners who are keen to follow their own intuitions. "I feel proud, having opened the door to allow this to form," said Steve. "My doing my white wine gave him [Dan Petroski] the confidence to do his, which is all about delicacy and restraint."
Not attributing the evolution to winemakers only, Steve also gives props to the new guard of sommeliers. No longer a mere extension of the Captain Waiter, sommeliers now come from a crop of intelligent, thoughtful individuals who "are opening doors and allowing us to follow our passions," said Matthiasson. While visiting the NYC market last week, he encountered "multiple sommeliers who would say that California is the most exciting wine region in the world now."
And though the market was initially closed to the Matthiassons' efforts, "they weren't interested in our wines," said Steve of the conventional press, he and his wife Jill reached out to bloggers, treating them like real press by inviting them to tastings and dinners.
"Jill and I make wine within the context of egalitarianism," he added. While Jill handles the business end of Matthiasson Wines, she also sells their fruits from organic orchards at the local farmer's market, crafts preserves, and writes the Matthiasson Vineyard blog. "We view wine as food. Mondavi talked about wine having a gracious place at the table. He was mortified by what has happened in the 2000's. Most people don't understand him, which is a tragedy because he was a visionary."
To read more about the Matthiassons' practices and vision, stay tuned for Part II.